|HIT AND MISS STRIP, 1983|
I wanted to see an exhibit of the work of an African-American woman named Effie Mae Howard (1936-2006): a recluse who’d had a mental breakdown, begun making quilts, shown her work under the pseudonym Rosie Lee Tompkins, and recently died.
“The reason [the work] makes me feel so good is that I put Christ in the center of it,” Tompkins had said and, from the photos, her quilts—abstract, off-kilter, geometric, saturated with color—were stunning and original pieces of art. I’d first read of Tompkins earlier in the year, and upon learning that the museum was mounting an exhibit, I'd determined, come hell or high water, to make time to see it.
Why did it seem so important to see the work of a person who, according to one review, had “suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s, and thereafter was plagued by voices in her head and the sense that she was being watched”?
First, because by all accounts Tompkins’ quilts were sublime. But also because that we bend over our work even when we’re in pain matters. That we’re faithful to the call of our hearts even though nobody notices or cares, and we’re not making any money, and the suffering continues, matters.
People consider it a badge of honor to describe themselves as countercultural—which usually means they’re listening to Eckhart Tolle as they cut you off in their SUV—but I’ll tell you what’s countercultural. Anonymity is countercultural (Tompkins had not allowed herself to be photographed, tape-recorded, or quoted). Losing your mind and taking up quilt-making is countercultural. Anything that’s done for the glory of God, not ourselves, is countercultural.
So I would take my little stand. I would drive 200 miles each way to honor the fact that Rosie Lee Tompkins had anonymously threaded her needle, and taken thousands of tiny stitches, and made her explosive, crazy, glorious quilts.
The drive was destined to take place during a torrential, torrential downpour, past pizza shops and ice cream stands and white-steepled churches; past the Kokopelli Inn and Pelkey’s Blueberries and a sign saying “Free Stuff.” The rain slashed down so hard, and I was so exhausted, that I almost turned around. But I kept thinking of Rosie Lee Tompkins, who, from odds and ends of fabric, buttons, rickrack, sequins, lace, had fashioned a whole strange, mystical existence.
When I finally arrived, The Shelburne transpired to be situated on 45 acres of grounds and feature, among other things, a Blacksmith Shop, a weaving cottage, the Vermont Settlers House-Cabin; a textile section, a Shaker exhibit, American and Impressionist Paintings, collections of dollhouses, glassware and ceramics. I bypassed all that, walked through what seemed like miles of nasturtiums, roses, and sere cornstalks, and went straight to “Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins.”
I saw at once that the exhibit was worth the long drive. The whole trip would have been worthwhile for a single quilt: “Hit and Miss Strip,” a 73” by 112” work consisting of irregularly-sized pieces of black and blood-red velvet—squares, triangles—sewn together in jagged, improvisational blocks and rows. The quilt gave the effect of a cross without actually depicting a cross; an effect of controlled chaos, of a pattern, but one that shifted and morphed. Nothing lined up but the pieces all went together. Barely-contained…Sorrow? Love? Grief? Erotic energy. I didn’t know, but she “got” it. I’d felt the same way when I first heard Stan Getz’s “People Time.” Richness, complexity, depth, and a ton of pain.
In addition to quilts, the exhibit included, among other items, table runners, chair cushions, clothing, and a pillow cover of a stained-glass window featuring a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus wearing a rosette-studded pink robe. Tompkins had eventually covered just about everything in her house with patchwork, often embroidering on her name, her birthday—9-6-36—and various Bible verses.
Her pieces had been hailed by art critics, featured in museums nationwide, described as the best “painting” in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, but she had never achieved the tranquility she sought. She came to believe that her phone was tapped. She felt that people were watching and listening, as if she lived in “a glass house.” She draped one whole wall of her bedroom with appliquéd crosses, hoping to ward off the voices, but to no avail. In spite of her torment, she had continued, up till the time of her death, to sew.
“I think it’s because I love them so much,” Tompkins speculated, “that God let me see all these different colors.”
|this quilt is by Lola Ruiz (quiltsimprovisados.blogspot.com), |
inspired by Rosie Lee Tompkins